Making the most of the second-hand market

Features James Hunt Jan 15, 2013

Buying second-hand is a gamble, but it can pay off. James shows how to navigate the rough waters of the secondary market

The fast pace at which the computing industry moves means that there’s always a new and desirable piece of technology just around the corner. A bigger monitor, a better graphics card, a more powerful CPU. The fast turnover may be the bane of those who like to stay on the bleeding edge, but if you’re content to have a more mid-field system, it has a huge advantage. If you’re willing to buy components second-hand, you can potentially get hold of big upgrades and recent components for a fraction of their price as new.

Buying second-hand isn’t without risks, of course. You have no idea how well hardware has been treated before you buy it, and getting a refund for components that are dead on arrival could prove tricky if you’ve bought them in a private sale. Beware, in particular, of those listing components as ‘untested’ with no returns, for such claims (which mostly legitimate) are also an easy way for the unscrupulous to offload hardware that they know is broken.

To protect yourself, try to use systems that rely on a measure of user moderation and feedback. Be careful of buying used components at computer fairs where the chance of contacting a seller again is slim to non-existent. If you can buy hardware with its warranty intact, it’s worth doing, but remember that you might need the original receipt.

The second-hand market can also work for you, of course. There are plenty of ways to sell hardware as well, allowing you to recoup the cost of nearly new purchases should you find that an upgrade you want comes around a little too quickly.

To help you navigate the unfamiliar waters of the second-hand market, we’ve put together this short guide to the various types of second-hand sale, examining their advantages and disadvantages and hopefully reassuring you that buying and selling in the secondary market isn’t quite as risky or as difficult as you might think.

Classifieds

Classified ads are, historically, a good place to buy or sell anything second-hand - although it does depend on the source. Sites like Craigslist and Gumtree are basically unmoderated, meaning that they’re not just full of people selling duff items, they’re full of people who are looking to actively commit fraud!

Obviously, not everyone using those sites is a crook, but there’s almost no way to tell the good from the bad until you’re actively engaging with the process. Make sure to follow the rules of common sense: don’t pay by cash or bank transfer, keep copies of correspondence, make sure you see proof of postage if you’re receiving goods and make sure you send anything you sell by registered post, so that you can be sure of a safe delivery!

Of course, if you want to engage with a more reliable classifieds system, we obviously have to point to Micro Mart’s own classifieds listings, which you’ll find towards the back of every issue. The good thing about our listings is that you’re only ever dealing with computer enthusiasts, so people are broadly knowledgeable about what they’re buying and selling, which means prices are fair and buyers are unlikely to be dissatisfied with the goods they receive.

Nearly new goods

Many manufacturers and retailers allow you to buy ‘refurbished’ or ‘open box’ items from their online stores. Whatever phrase they choose to use, the terms cover items that have been returned by another customer and put back on sale after being checked by the retailer. Crucially for any buyer, they’ll be as much as 20% cheaper than buying the hardware new, representing one of the best ways to get an instant second-hand bargain on nearly new products.

The big question, of course, is why the item was returned or refurbished in the first place. If you’re buying from a retailer, rather than the manufacturer, you’re most likely to see ‘open box’ items. This could mean an ex-display model, something that was purchased, used once and returned simply because the buyer didn’t like it, or faulty hardware that the retailer hasn’t bothered to properly investigate. Mostly, it’ll mean some minor aesthetic fault, such as a scratched or dented exterior - even just damage to the packaging. The important thing is to try to determine the item’s history before you buy it, particularly whether you can return it or whether there’s a valid warranty.

However, the danger of buying faulty goods is substantially reduced if you buy so-called ‘factory refurbished’ items from the manufacturer. In some cases, you’re actually less likely to get a faulty product than if you buy new: when manufacturers sell items as factory refurbished goods, they haven’t just put a returned item into the box, taped it up and put it on sale; they’ve often subjected the hardware to a full testing procedure, which sees portions of its internals and/or exterior replaced entirely to eliminate any damage, faults or signs of use.

Apple famously ensures that a refurbished item has undergone testing far more rigorous than anything a ‘new’ product goes through before it hits shelves, meaning that its refurbished tablets, laptops and systems are a fantastic bargain. Not every manufacturer and retailer is as painstaking, but the rule does apply generally: if an item is returned, the seller has had to investigate and potentially repair any fault before putting it back on the shelf a second time, so any outlet with a reputation to uphold is likely to have been thorough.

For these reasons, refurbished goods are a smart way to buy ‘new’ hardware, and particularly in the case of complete systems and consumer electronics where faults are hard for novices to locate but easy for companies to repair. To illustrate, a Nexus 7 tablet costs £199 new, while a refurbished example can be picked up for as little as £160. If anything, the former is more likely to fail, but because someone else has handled the latter, it instantly loses a huge chunk of its value. If you can stand knowing that you’re the second owner of the device (or some part of it, at least), then you’ll easily save a lot of money.

eBay

If someone mentions buying or selling goods second-hand, it’s a safe bet that your brain will go straight to thinking about eBay. It’s not hard to see why: the website has been around longer than most and has crushed the competition over the years with its wide range of content and reliable system of sales.

However, the site’s strength is also a weakness. eBay’s enduring popularity means that bargains are hard to find and even harder to hold onto. Hardware sales on eBay, even at auction, tend to match the cheapest retail price very closely, while ‘Buy It Now’ sellers are usually more expensive. Any desirable second-hand bargains you spot are likely to end close to the limit of whatever’s being sold at retail.

It’s possible to pick up good deals on cheaper components that don’t retain much value - specifically, we’re thinking of optical drives, mice/keyboards and speakers - but that’s only because there’s very little competition and not much money to be saved. Try to find a bargain monitor on eBay and you’ll quickly discover that they don’t exist.

However, what that does mean is that eBay is a great place to sell components. It helps that the market can decide the price; it’s possible to search for completed listings, so if you have hardware to sell, you can quickly find out what the market value is before you get anywhere near clicking the ‘sell’ button.

eBay’s biggest advantage over most second-hand outlets is its feedback system, which allows you to check the credibility of buyers and sellers before engaging with them. Although the payment system is heavily tilted in favour of using PayPal as the payment method, which may be inconvenient if you don’t have a PayPal account, there’s a lot of protection on both sides and you can be fairly sure that if you take the correct precautions (communicating through eBay’s messaging system, checking returns policy in advance, getting postage receipts, etc.) that you won’t be ripped off.

Freecycle

Arguably the home of the best bargains of all, Freecycle (aka The Freecycle Network) is an organisation that co-ordinates groups of local people over an email list/forum allowing them to request and offer items of any kind. It’s like a classifieds website, only the listings are all entirely free.

The idea is to unite people’s unwanted goods with those who actually want them, saving potential junk from a rather more useless fate in a landfill site somewhere. The nature of the organisation means it’s quite good for computing components; when old systems and peripherals are replaced, they’re often listed as an alternative to being thrown out in case anyone wants to refurbish or strip them for parts. All you have to do, as the interested party, is collect the goods. No money changes hands and that means the potential for fraud is virtually nil.

The system allows you to request goods as well as offer them, so if you’re after a specific piece of hardware, there’s a chance someone has it lying around unused and will be happy to gift it to you. Obviously, you’re unlikely to get anything with significant value when using Freecycle (no amount of requesting an Ultrabook or GeForce GTX 660 is likely to result in you receiving one), but if you’re interested in getting your hands on a free system and don’t mind a little work fixing it up, an old laptop or desktop isn’t out of the question. After all, selling them is often more trouble than it’s worth.

A quick scan of the local Freecycle group shows a variety of computing-related offers across the spectrum of prices: a free copy of Office 2003, ten empty printer cartridges for recycling, a VGA cable, a Dell Inspiron 1300 Laptop (without its hard drive), multiple working wireless routers, a 17” monitor, a box of assorted computer parts (including keyboards and mice) and a NAS case (again, sans hard drive) - all within the last 24 hours.

Obviously, the quality of the selection varies wildly (and most users are clearly shrewd enough to remove hard drives before giving them away, so don’t think there’s an opportunity for any identity-theft fraud either…), but if you check the site for a few days, there’s a good chance you’ll find hardware you want or need on offer. There are no guarantees of quality, but then the price is so good, it’s worth taking a risk on.

What should you buy?

Just because buying second-hand hardware can be a good idea, it doesn’t mean it always is. Certain components, such as RAM, processors and hard drives are excessively vulnerable to wear but may show no sign of it until their inevitable catastrophic failure, which could leave your data junked and your PC unusable.

There’s no guarantee, for example, that the second-hand CPU you buy hasn’t been running overclocked for years and is mere weeks away from dying completely. You can’t be certain whether any second-hand hard drive you buy has endured thousands of hours of constant use, or whether it was woken up once a week so that the owner could check their email. In either case, a hardware failure would be disastrous, but unlike second-hand cars, there’s no odometer you can simply read before (or indeed, after) you buy them to check how much strain has been placed on these parts.

While this is true for other components, it’s only with the most vulnerable, system-critical hardware that you should allow caution to get the better of doubt. Components that don’t often fail (or that won’t cause huge problems if they do) can be approached more casually on the secondary market.

Motherboards, for instance, are rarely put under any significant strain and have low failure rates under normal use. The vast majority are replaced before they get anywhere near the end of their lifespan. Ditto for optical drives, speakers and monitors. Cases are virtually indestructible. Accessories like cables are always a bargain second-hand, often available completely unused because they were included free with another purchase despite being unnecessary.

There’s always some risk when buying second-hand, but as long as you stay away from the most vulnerable components, you should be able to minimise the potential for disaster and save money in the process.